After 43 years selling suits, retailing is still a thrill for this Portland merchant

Posted April 17, 2017, at 8:56 a.m.
Last modified May 08, 2017, at 4 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — He is Maine’s original urban outfitter.

Portland native Joseph Redman has been selling upscale men’s duds, custom suits and cufflinks for 43 years in the Old Port. Located on trendy Fore Street, his eponymous and inviting haberdashery Joseph’s is as much a Portland landmark as Harbor Fish Market.

And like Harbor Fish, Joseph’s has crested the fickle waves of retail with aplomb. Businesses come and go in Portland’s high rent district, but this bricks and mortar survivor has adapted in style.

“Men want to be more stylish now,” the West End native said. And in Portland, they know where to go.

Setting up shop during the Ford presidency, Redman offered an alternative from the preppy, L.L. Bean-meets-hunting look that passed for men’s fashion in Maine’s largest city. By offering a sampling of gear that gents could only find in department stores in Boston, he helped restore a pulse to the heart of this struggling port city.

“There was no commercial center like there is now, it’s become more sophisticated. There was not the volume of stores, but a lot of empty spaces on the street,” he recalled when, as a newly minted MBA grad from Babson College in Massachusetts, he rehabbed an old warehouse in 1974 to make his thesis a reality.

Redman knew the Old Port, then a rough zone that attracted more seafarers than well-heeled tourists, could support a men’s store.

Armed with a loan from a bank, he turned a dusty and drafty 1809 building that once housed spices and tea into a luxurious, two-story boutique and filled it with Italian suits, ties and scarves.

The tall, personable and kind Redman can sell you a deluxe three-piece getup, fun socks and a hip pocket square, while making you feel like you’re visiting an old friend. He’s got Bruno Magli shoes for the uptowners, Paul and Shark jackets for the yachting set and Loyal Citizen, the graphic T-shirt line started by his 30 year-old son Julian, who works here, for hipsters.

Staying up on trends hasn’t been hard for Redman, neither is standing on his feet all day. He loves the game.

“I get a thrill when I sell something. A natural high,” he said. Wrapping up a silk scarf after a sale, “you feel like you’ve accomplished something.”

And as giant retailers like Eastern Mountain Sports and J. Crew struggle to exist, this family-run business, one of the longest continually run stores in Portland, is growing year over year.

Business hiccupped during the Great Recession, but has returned. Sales have grown by 10 percent in the last 10 years, he said. E-commerce is not a threat. “You can’t buy a suit online, you don’t get the quality, you can’t get the fit,” he said.

It doesn’t get more custom than visiting Paul, the bespoke tailor in the basement, as you sip a complimentary espresso.

Sure, Redman is no Leon Leonwood Bean — he didn’t invent an iconic hunting boot — but he helped launch a shopping district that now attracts chains like Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, and soon West Elm and Athletica.

“Portland has become such a destination city, half of my business is from out of state,” Redman said.

The other half? Businessmen, old and young, transplants and urbanites who don’t mind dropping a few thousand on a Corneliani suit from Italy. Carrying coveted labels out of San Franciso like Golden Bear, and six brands of denim jeans all made in the United States is a source of pride.

Fellow pillar of the community, Mary Allen Lindemann, co-owner of Coffee By Design, has deep respect for Redman.

“Joe was one of the early visionaries who was passionate about his business but also saw what the Old Port had the potential to become more,” she said. “Joe through Joseph’s has proven that he is a Maine brand here for the long haul.”

Redman also considers employees like family. “I give them clothes, treat them to lunch. I know what’s going on in their lives,” he said. “I should pin a medal on them every year … I try to take care of people.”

That is evident the minute you walk through his doors.

“We have passion,” he said. “We care about customers and the survival of the store.”

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